SLAM!Sports
August 23, 2004
Canada earns fifth medal
Verbeek wins silver in wrestling
By JULIE SCOTT

ATHENS (CP) - During moments of self-doubt when Tonya Verbeek considered giving up wrestling, her mom offered some advice: Don't worry, you'll win when it counts.

And that's exactly what happened earlier this year when Verbeek defeated rival Jen Ryz to earn a spot on the Canadian Olympic team for Athens, where women's wrestling was to make its Olympic debut.

"After she won the trials, she phoned us right away and that was the first thing she said, 'Mom, you were right,"' recalled Kathy Verbeek. "And of course I said, 'Moms are always right."'

Kathy was in the crowd Monday, shiny gold and red maple leaf stickers stuck on her cheeks, to watch her daughter capture a silver medal in the 55-kilogram division at the Olympic Games, beaten 6-0 by two-time world champion Saori Yoshida of Japan in the final.

The result caps several years of ups and downs for Verbeek, who has toiled in a deep 55-kilogram class in Canada.

After winning the national title and finishing fifth at the world championships in 1995, the 27-year-old from Beamsville, Ont., has placed second or third at the senior national championships five times since then, never making it back to the worlds.

There were days when she just didn't know if it was worth the effort to continue.

"There was other things going on and I thought it's not happening for me so why am I bothering," said Verbeek, whose father Jerry was also in the stands Monday. "But it was really because I wasn't training as hard and committing myself. It was all or nothing and I had to decide. So I decided that I had to pick it up and started making strides."

She came into these Games in the shadow of six-time world champion Christine Nordhagen of Calgary, who was touted as Canada's biggest medal threat.

"I might have not been put in the papers but that doesn't matter," said Verbeek, who ended the Games with a 3-1 record. "I knew I was coming here to compete because I worked my butt off. So I expect the best of myself and that's what I did these last two days."

Nordhagen ended up fifth.

For her coach Marty Calder, a former Olympic wrestler himself, Verbeek's silver medal was especially satisfying.

"I had a lot of confidence in her physical ability to be successful at this level," said Calder. "You can say you're going to do it, you can think you're going to do it but going and doing it is a different thing. And today she did it."

Meanwhile, Nordhagen won the fifth-place bout in the 72-kilogram division when her opponent, Anita Schaetzle of Germany, retired with an injury. Nordhagen had beaten American Toccara Montgomery earlier in the day to advance. Viola Yanik of Saskatoon defeated Volha Khilko of Belarus 5-2 to take fifth spot in the 63-kilogram class. That followed a win over Stephanie Gross of Germany 4-1. Lyndsay Belisle of Hazelton, B.C., failed to advance out of the preliminary round in the 48-kilogram class.

Being one of the dominant countries in the sport, Canada's female wrestlers went into the Games with high hopes.

"I can't say I'm disappointed," said Canadian women's coach Leigh Vierling, who is married to Nordhagen. "We had some really tough opponents. To give you an indication, against the U.S., the No. 2 team in the world last year, we've gone 3-0 against that team head-to-head. They're one of the best wrestling nations in the world."

Verbeek said winning one of the first Olympic medals in women's wrestling was special.

"Maybe I haven't digested it all and I still need to take it all in but right now, it feels great," she said. "There are so many people who are a part of this and I just happen to be the one who stepped on the mat today."

Yoshida, a two-time world champion, has dominated the 55-kilogram class, winning every international competition she has entered, a streak Verbeek never really threatened.

"There are some strategic things I could have maybe done a little big different," said Verbeek. "But I really did give it my all. I'd say I'm happy but I'm not satisfied."

Verbeek defeated Ida-Theres Karlsson of Sweden 3-1 in the semifinals while Yoshida beat Anna Gomis of France 7-6 in a close bout.

While the 9,000-seat Ano Liossia Olympic Hall wasn't full, several hundred Japanese fans made it feel as if it were bursting at the seams, waving flags, banging symbols and blowing horns every time one of their athletes was on the mat.

The Canadian contingent attempted to drown the Japanese out with a chorus of 'Let's go Canada.' But they were outnumbered. When Yoshida finally won, the crowd erupted.

But the Japanese were quieted after Irini Merleni of Ukraine defeated Chiharu Icho of Japan in the 48-kilogram final to become the first the first female Olympic gold medallist. Merleni was so excited with the victory she leapt into the referee's arms and wrapped her legs around his waist before dropping to floor for some vigorous fist-pumping. Atop the medal podium, she wept as her Ukrainian fans chanted her name.

Japan's dominant women's team was also disappointed when Kyoko Hamaguchi was upset by 18-year-old Wang Xu of China 6-4 in the semifinals of the 72-kilogram class.

There was confusion throughout the final two minutes because the actual score repeatedly differed from that on the scoreboard, possibly affecting how Hamaguchi wrestled.

The outcome so angered her father, longtime Japanese pro wrestling star Heigo (The Animal) Hamaguchi, that police restrained him from running onto the mat.

"We have been training very hard together, 365 days a year, for many years together," his daughter said in his defence. "When we experience a loss, both of us share the feeling of depression together."

Wang went on to defeat Gouzel Maniourova of Russia 7-2.

Kaori Icho of Japan defeated Sara McMann of the U.S., 3-2 at 63 kilograms.


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